Social Networking and Affective Labor
Before I discuss what is at stake for these users, it's important to understand why social media use can be analyzed as a kind of labor, especially a gendered kind of labor. (Readers familiar with the social-networking-as-labor argument may wish to skip to the next section). To briefly summarize, social media sites mediate social interactions through an online network such that these transactions have the potential to generate value for the owners of the network. In the profit-driven model of many social networking sites, users receive convenient access to their friends, families, and colleagues who are also in the network, in exchange for users supplying behavioral and demographic data that can be both sold outright and used to induce the investments of advertisers (Andrejevic 2009). This is part of what makes users financially valuable for network owners. Additionally, participation of users is what makes others want to participate. For this purpose, the most valuable users are often those who we might say socialize hardest. These are the users whose activities build the "sense of connectedness or community" that Michael Hardt (1999, 96) describes as a major outcome of affective labor. This labor is doubly hard to see, both because its product is immaterial and because the skills it deploys are affective. It may be triply hard to see, really, because it is the kind of caring work that is traditionally expected of marginal subjects but, when deployed skillfully, it goes unnoticed by those at the center whose livelihoods depend on it to function smoothly (think here of domestic workers and administrative support staff). Dorothy Smith's (2004) feminist critique of sociology illuminates that the tendency for these efforts at care to be invisible is not coincidental, but is instead a predictable outcome of looking at labor from a patriarchally structured standpoint.